Africa Needs To Forge A Unified Approach To Russia – OpEd
Mikhail Bogdanov, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation; Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, has offered excellent directions into Russia’s policy implementation in Africa within the context of emerging new world order. The changing geopolitical situation is often discussed in relation to Africa, officials always attempt to point out what and how Africa should play its role especially dealing with external partners.
Russia and China are building the relationship of fair competition in Africa, Bogdanov said in an interview late February with TASS, adding that Moscow and Beijing do not share the approaches of former Western colonial powers. That said, the Russian side has something to offer to African partners in the economic sense now.
“The policy of Russia, same as China, which are Africa’s time-tested partners, is pragmatic and naturally based on the balance of national interests. We are building an equitable relationship, being respectful to the sovereignty of foreign countries, their integral right to determine their domestic and international policy themselves. Meanwhile, fair competition is always relevant. This is what makes Russia’s fundamental approaches different from those of former Western colonial powers,” he noted.
He says the issue is not about the West’s attention to the continent that has intensified recently, but about desperate attempts by the collective West to maintain its neocolonial empire. “Today, especially after Russia and the West came to a parting of the ways through no fault of ours, Western countries are facing an urgent necessity to replenish essential resources that have been lost, for supporting their industry and for economic development and, if possible, with minimum expenses. Their goal in Africa now is to solve existentialist issues, so to say. It can be seen in the tools they use, mostly ‘unsportsmanlike’, including ‘laws’ restricting Russia’s activities in Africa, sanctions, stop lists, threats, blackmail,” he said.
Writing under the title “Russia’s Policy Towards Africa” back in September 2019, Institute of African Studies reasearcher Olga Kulkova explicitly explained that Russia has greatly strengthened its presence in Africa over the past few years. It has signed new agreements with several countries there, including on cooperation in the field of military technology, security and counterterrorism.
On the positive side, this has reinforced Russia’s traditionally friendly ties with its African partners, after its sudden withdrawal from Africa in the early 1990s which was, indeed, a strategic blunder. But, Russian authorities have become fully aware of these primary policy mistakes. Now is the time to revitalize and rebuild the old ties and also important to forge new ones. Russia’s policy towards Africa can be described as unique, but it has fewer financial and economic opportunities for implementing its policy on the continent compared to that of China.
Last February writing under the title “What Africa Expects From Russia”, Valdai Club expert Nourhan ElSheikh clearly noted that the Russian-African partnership is the core for a new multipolar world order that would be more fair and just for all. Africa expects a lot from Russia. Historical cooperation between the two and the huge capabilities that Russia possesses confirm its ability to meet these expectations and move forward together to the future.
Africa is a promising continent with broad prospects for economic growth. It is very rich in both natural and human resources. Africa has 30% of the world’s total minerals, 10% of oil reserves, 8% of gas reserves, and nearly 60% of the world’s untapped agricultural area. By 2040, Africa will have the largest labour force, as a quarter of the world’s population will live there; with young people accounting for more than 60%.
Although Africa possesses all the requirements needed for development and economic breakthroughs, it still suffers from hunger, poverty, poor living standards, and political instability. Over long decades of colonialism, Western countries exploited Africa and drained its wealth without investing in any development. Africa needs fair and balanced partnerships in order to help it face its problems and move toward the future.
African countries deeply trust Russia as a reliable partner. This reliance is rooted in the Soviet era, when Moscow was the only supporter of the African national liberation movements. Russia provided the newly independent African countries with economic, military and technical assistance.
Russia is also distinguished by its cooperative rather than competitive approach to the continent. Unlike Western countries, which view Africa as an arena for international competition, Moscow seeks development partnerships based on a win-win principle. It bases its cooperation on mutual respect of interests, non-interference in internal affairs, and consolidating peace and stability.
In this context, Africa looks forward to an active partnership with Russia in confronting its crises and launching economic and social development according to the following priorities. Chief among these is the food crisis, which is considered the most pressing in Africa. More than a third of people in the world who suffer from chronic hunger and undernourishment are in Africa. Cooperation with Russia is crucial in overcoming this existential crisis.
In the short term, this means providing African countries with Russian grain and fertilizers. In the long term, it entails helping Africans in developing their agricultural sector and providing them with the required technology. A number of African countries have fertile soil and sufficient water resources. But they are in dire need of investment in technology, not only to satisfy their nutritional needs but to become regional centres for Russian grain production.
Providing investment and technology for the energy sector is also an African priority. African countries need to exploit their natural resources in the field of energy. This includes oil, gas, new and renewable energy, and hydroelectric power, as many countries in the continent, especially Sub-Saharan ones, suffer from a severe deficit in electricity. Likewise, cooperation is needed in mining and the extraction of Africa’s huge reserves of minerals. Linked to this is the development of industries that depend on the natural resources that Africa possesses. The same priority can be given to the development of both the education and healthcare sectors, as well as transport infrastructure, especially railways. Ignorance and disease are fundamental challenges to any development efforts in Africa.
In parallel with those development areas, it is necessary to work on ensuring peace and stability. Africa suffers greatly from political instability, as well as from internal and regional armed conflicts. There is no sustainable development without stability and peace. Russia has played an important role in restoring stability and combating terrorism in a number of African countries, including Mali and the Central African Republic. Russia has actively participated in peacekeeping forces in Africa. It is important to enhance Russia’s role as a guarantor of peace and stability in Africa. African countries rely on Russia as an honest partner that sincerely supports peace and stability.
Many African experts, however, believe that Russia is doing little with investment in Africa. Unlike Western countries, European Union members and Asian countries which focus particularly on what they wanted to achieve with Africa, Russia places anti-colonial fight at the core of its policy. Long before it held its first summit, Russia had made several pledges and promises, held several meeting with several delegations. Records show that 92 bilateral aggrements were signed at the end of the Russia-Africa summit in 2019 have not been implemented, and yet officials are still and passionately looking for more agreements with Africa.
Worthy to understand the fact that Africa has attained its political independence far back in the 60s, and many of them are striving to diversify their economies, build infrastructure, modern agriculture to ensure food security and push for industrializing using the vibrant human resources. These African countries are ready for cooperating with potential investors with funds for transforming the resources, especially with the evolving African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), initiated by the African Union.
South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), a policy think tank, also suggested that Africa needs to forge a unified approach to Russia before 2023 Russia-Africa Summit.
In its researched policy report, the think tank operators have argued that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visits to Africa, last year and early this year, highlighted the need for the development of a continental Russian strategy to avoid becoming a pawn in global power games. Those trips have underscored the importance for African countries to develop well-crafted positions when engaging with external powers. Without this, Africa risks being caught up in geopolitical disputes, diminishing its global voice and agency. Lavrov reinforced the criticism of Western policies in Africa.
Russia has been ramping up its military relationships with several African countries for at least a decade. Its approach is often influenced by close ties between Russia’s arms industry and its infamous private security contractor, the Wagner Group. According to Sipri, a Swedish think tank, Russia was the largest arms supplier to Africa in 2021, accounting for 44% of continental imports of major arms. In total, Russia has signed military agreements with more than 20 African countries.
While Russia is not among Africa’s largest trading partners, its presence cannot be discounted. It is estimated that in 2020, Russia’s trade with African countries amounted to more than $14-billion, with Egypt accounting for about 30% of this total. But, while the Russian economy and size of its military are much larger than that of any single African country, collectively, the continent can hold more sway. In 2021, Africa’s collective GDP was around $2.7-trillion, while Russia’s amounted to about $1.7-trillion.
It is not hard to see why taking sides is problematic for African states. Perhaps, the most important way forward is for African countries to work in cooperation with one another. Thus, developing relationships beyond short-term impact is critical to ensure the continent is not dominated by other global powers’ interests.
Overcoming passivity could involve the following steps: Africa urgently needs a Russia strategy. To that end, the AU can — and should — engage with its members in a more structured manner and help them put together joint positions on critical issues related to Russia and other partners, like the US, China, Europe and others.
The first step in this direction should be strengthening the AU’s Partnership Management and Coordination Division. The division can serve as a more appropriate place for reflection on how its member states can better advocate for the continent’s needs, and ensure African voices are heard in discussions with countries like Russia.
Russia’s role in Africa is expected to remain controversial and contested. It is clear that Russia knows what it wants from the continent: access to markets, political support and general influence. Now it is time for the continent to clarify what it wants from Russia in return. In the lead-up to the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, the AU and its member states should strengthen their positions regarding external partnerships. If not, the continent risks being left behind and used as a pawn in an increasingly divided global order.